By Peter Buchan

Image by Paolo Zanoni

Have you ever wanted to try freediving? Take a deep breath and dive into the what, where and why of freediving.

Perhaps you have given thought to taking up freediving. You have seen freedivers gliding down onto the reef, spearfishermen walking home on the beach at sunset with their hard-won dinner, or YouTube clips of thrill-seekers risking it all to dive deep into the darkness on a single breath. Many of you must have wondered what it feels like. Whatever your current assessment of freediving might be, if you love floating in water, then you have yet to try it au naturel.

But, before you continue reading, let us play a game. Sit back and relax. Once you are settled and comfy, exhale slowly and completely, then inhale steadily up to a full breath (not too deeply now) and see how far you get through the questions and answers below before you are forced to exhale, or until someone taps you on the shoulder and asks whether your natural pallor is ghostly.

Are you ready for it? See how many marks you can collect.

Q | WHAT EXACTLY IS FREEDIVING?
A │ Freediving (also known as apnoea) is the act of voluntarily holding your breath, for fun. It is usually in (and preferably deep within) a body of water.

Q | WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO FREEDIVE?
A │There are two parts to this answer. Firstly, because it will improve your dives. Secondly, because science increasingly suggests that apnoea training holds significant benefits for both your body and mind. Think of it as getting to dance with your ancient, pre-terrestrial DNA, whilst wearing a wetsuit. A long, static breath-hold above water starts up the hidden engine inside all of us, known as the mammalian diving reflex. Doing it under hydrostatic pressure takes you through all the gears.

Q | IS FREEDIVING DANGEROUS?
A │Think of it this way: do you sleep with your front door open at night? Like everything in life, freediving is beholden to rules.  If you stray too far then the risks will compound. Virtually all freediving accidents can be traced back to diving or training alone. Either that, or they are linked to the quest for absolute depth records using a weighted sled. Pursue freediving with respect, humility and love and it will be safer than riding a bicycle.

(Mark one: Do you think you need to breathe yet? No, you do not.)

Q | DOES REPEATED HYPOXIA CAUSE BRAIN DAMAGE?
A | No. The medical understanding of apnoea has expanded in the past two decades and many misconceptions have now been debunked, including the negative outcomes on the brain.

Q | HOW EXACTLY WILL FREEDIVING TRAINING MAKE ME A BETTER SCUBA DIVER?
A │ Elite scuba divers generally share two traits, namely the ability to defuse rising stress and calm themselves at will, both before and during a dive, and also mastery over buoyancy. Even an entry-level freediving course will have a significant impact on both. Its benefits extend not only to other sports, but to life in general.

Q | ARE THERE ANY OTHER DIVING-RELATED BENEFITS?
A │Absolutely. Whilst breath-hold diving, you will get much closer to the marine life, plus it gives you additional options on extended scuba diving trips when conditions are optimal and you feel like doing something different. Oh, and it is affordable too.

(Mark two: By now you are skip-reading and your diaphragm is kicking like a mule. If this is as far as you think you can go, you are halfway to your true maximum, so push on.)

Q | IS FREEDIVING NOT JUST FOR FIT AND LEAN PEOPLE?
A │ Now it is my turn to ask a few questions. What exactly are you looking for? Do you want to master your scuba diving buoyancy, comfort and bottom time, or do you want to maximise those unexpected whale shark or dolphin snorkelling opportunities? Or, do you perhaps want to soak up the Zen as you free-fall down a shot-line toward a new personal best depth? There is a benefit for everyone, even non-divers.

Q | IS AGE A PROBLEM?
A │ Not at all. Italian legend, Enzo Maiorca, is still diving in his 80s. Apnoea is unique amongst sports in that the mental and emotional component makes up more than 70% of the skill-set. This is an aspect that prompted the record-winning freediver, Umberto Pelizzari, to make the famous comment: “Scuba divers dive to look around. The freediver dives to look inside.” In essence, freediving offers us a way to learn more about ourselves.

Q | HOW MUCH NEW EQUIPMENT WILL I NEED?
A │For a discovery pool course pack, you will need snorkelling gear and a positive attitude. For an entry-level depth course you will need just a plain old J-snorkel, although adding a stretchable rubber weight belt can be useful. In fact, below is a list of a freediver’s specialised gear needs in descending order of importance and it might surprise you:

  • A J-snorkel
  • A rubber belt
  • A custom-cut wetsuit and a hoodie
  • Long fins
  • The ubiquitous, much-hyped low-volume mask

Q | HOW DO I START?
A │ Like most things in life, fire-walking and bull-running excluded, you start with baby steps. In fact, take an entry-level course with an internationally-registered school and see how things flow from there. The training options range from one-day apnoea discovery pool sessions to full level-one certification courses of differing structures, durations and prices.

(Mark three: Are you still holding on? That is  impressive.)

Q | I AM INTERESTED. WHERE DO I SIGN UP?
A │ The following freediving teaching bodies currently have registered instructors listed in South Africa:

So, how did your breath-hold go? If you are a novice who is in average physical condition and reading at the average adult reading speed of 200-300 words per minute then:

  • At mark one, you would have experienced peripheral vasoconstriction as the blood vessels near your extremities shrank, drawing blood inward a little. Your rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels were triggering a preliminary alarm and your diaphragm started tensing up.
  • At mark two, your diaphragm was contracting forcefully under CO2 pressure as your blood metabolism acidified even further. Your muscle tension increased, especially in the jaw, neck and shoulders and your pulse rate was starting to fall.
  • If you made it to mark three, all finger-tapping and Muppet-eyed then, well, you are a natural. At that point your spleen was contracting to release stored blood reserves (our secret stash) and your muscles were starting to consume stored glycogen even though you were stationary.

Whichever mark you managed to reach, you probably have to re-read the questions and answers from the beginning anyway. The good news is that however stressful that might have felt on dry land, that is not how it feels underwater, where it is all done in silence and in Zen. So go on, grab your snorkel and click that mouse to sign up for a course.